King's politics of Hope
As a backdrop to this year's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday observance, Sen. Barack Obama has unleashed the mobilizing power of hope and...
Special to The Times
As a backdrop to this year's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday observance, Sen. Barack Obama has unleashed the mobilizing power of hope and raised expectations that America's dreadful years of racial apartheid may be coming to a close.
On his 39th birthday, another African American "in the heart-changing business" put the politics of hope in very personal terms: "If I didn't have hope, I couldn't go on," the Rev. Dr. King said.
In 1968, a cataclysmic time of upheaval, violence and polarization, what King hoped for was that Americans would put aside cynicism and defeatism to form a multiracial coalition to shift the country's resources from militarism and war to ending poverty in our lifetimes. He called it the Poor People's Campaign.
As we celebrate the late civil-rights leader's 79th birthday, the parallels and contrasts to the present deserve our attention, especially since moments of hope come rarely and do not last long.
From 1955 to 1965, King helped to create a powerful interracial coalition to pass the civil-rights and voting-rights acts. But by 1968, many considered King's strategy of nonviolence and interracial organizing outdated, and his goal of a beloved community impossible. When King condemned the war in Vietnam as a misguided, morally wrong, imperialist adventure, The New York Times editorialized that "King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people."
A bipartisan, anti-communist coalition of Democrats and Republicans had dragged the nation into a never-ending cycle of death in Southeast Asia. Until that stopped, King said, the U.S. could never exert moral leadership in the world nor alleviate poverty at home. He was virtually called a traitor for taking this stand. That may sound all too familiar today to Obama and others trying to get us out of the quagmire of Iraq.
Condemnations of King grew apace as he campaigned to bring poor people to sit in at the seat of government in Washington, D.C. He also joined a strike of 1,300 sanitation workers for union rights in Memphis. Constantly threatened with death, King felt under siege, yet continued to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless. He believed that ordinary people, when organized, could exercise extraordinary power.
King's moment of hope passed all too quickly, nearly 40 years ago, when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
It was a time of desperation much like our own. The gut-wrenching atrocities of the Bush administration in Iraq, its failure in New Orleans, and its disregard for constitutional rights have convinced many people that government cannot possibly do the right thing.
In defiance of the cynicism of our times, Obama says Americans can unite to move the country in a better direction. Obama is not willing to wait; he understands, like King, "the fierce urgency of now."
To take even incremental steps to rectify the disasters of the Bush regime, Obama must build a mighty movement. But we should be wary of entreaties (by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others) for "bipartisanship." We do not need more of the centrist politics that have led us into countless wars and gilded the rich.
To sustain the politics of hope, we still need King's vision of a coalition and a program that transcends the entrenched interests of wealth and power in both parties.
We still need to shift the country's resources to address the interrelated and international problems of racism, poverty and war, climate change and a host of other issues.
In the global economy of rich and poor, we still need King's "revolution of values" that would cause us to "shift from a 'thing-oriented' society to a 'person-oriented' society."
Neither Obama nor any other leading Democrat has yet promised to take us anywhere near King's demands for a fundamental redistribution of wealth and power. It is exciting to see this very hopeful moment in our political life, but even those politicians with the best intentions may not take us very far without a grass-roots coalition and movement making demands. King understood this and always tried to build that pressure.
Perhaps Obama's candidacy can help us launch a renewed popular movement to put human needs and an end to war at the core of our politics. That would be a politics of hope truly worthy of this country's promise to ensure that all people can pursue life, liberty and happiness, and to actually have a chance to obtain these goals.
That would be a politics of hope worthy of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.Michael K. Honey is Haley Professor of the Humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma, and author of "Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign" (W.W. Norton).
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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